Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"Finding Your Roots" - Alan Dershowitz, Carole King, and Tony Kushner

I have continued to watch the new season of Finding Your Roots, albeit in "encore performances" (PBS doesn't really have reruns, right?), but I find myself continually underwhelmed, both by the stories and by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., himself.  It isn't that the family stories aren't interesting — if I thought family stories were boring, then becoming a professional genealogist would have been a bad career move — but the method by which Gates presents the information does not lend itself to suspense.  It's hard to get excited when he says, "Please turn the page."  Since he is not actually telling a narrative but merely picking out essentially random facts, the "revelations" often seem to be a connect-the-dots puzzle that has not been completed.

The overall presentation style does not help.  Like an elderly aunt trying to extend her nephew's visit by doling out treats slowly over time, the guest finds himself obligated to stay longer and longer.  This sense of deliberate dragging out is heightened by extensive use of bland B-roll shots as filler.  How many times can we watch Gates walk slowly across a lawn or a room, gazing soulfully up at the sky or into the distance?  Or see yet another nameless researcher in an unidentified repository scroll through yet one more roll of microfilm with no context?

Something I have found extremely annoying is when a celebrity asks Gates, "Where did you find this?"  Most of the time Gates merely dissembles, but he has actually responded, "I can't tell you that!"  Well, why not?  What's the big secret?  This is PBS, and it's supposed to be educational.  Must our education be limited to hearing how great Dr. Gates is, and not how an ordinary person may learn about his own family?  Is access to these documents limited to people with big TV budgets?

And one more pet peeve.  The opening of each episode includes some CG text in the lower left corner of the screen:  "A film by Kunhardt McGree Productions . . . ."  I hate to deflate Dr. Gates, but these are not films; they are television episodes.  Films have plots and narratives, something lacking in Finding Your Roots.

Because there is little of substance to to talk about in the program, I thought I would be able to combine commentary on more than episode in a single blog post.  I surprised myself with what I had to say about only this episode, so I guess I will have a few more posts covering the program.  As several episodes have been aired since my first post, I decided to pick up again with one I watched more recently, coincidentally the one with three Jewish celebrities.

As I've mentioned, we have no continuity to follow in the research process, so it's impossible for me to say anything about that.  Since Gates declines to let his guests or his audience know about the big secret repository where he finds all of his stunning revelatory documents, I obviously can't comment on that either.  Unfortunately, that mostly leaves me with negative observations on some of what Gates says during the program.

In "Our People, Our Traditions", Gates presented Books of Life (should I include a trademark designation with that?) to Tony Kushner, Carole King, and Alan Dershowitz.  We watched the standard short background on each guest and the slow, painful parceling out of tidbits of information to each of them.  I will admit, probably the most startling thing I've heard on this show, or almost anywhere else, was Kushner's recollection of the woman in Lake Charles, Louisiaia, who asked him, "Where are the horns?", because she truly believed the old anti-Semitic myth that Jews have vestigial horns on their heads.  Seriously?  In the 20th century?  I hope that woman didn't breed.  I am so thankful I no longer live in the Deep South.

At one point, when talking with King, Gates commented, ". . . like all Jewish Americans have experienced prejudice."  Excuse me, but just where the hell does he get off making a blanket statement like that about several million people and passing it off as fact?  Am I the only one who noticed that remark?  How can he purport to know that every single solitary Jew in America has experienced prejudice?  Did he conduct a survey?  I sure didn't get a copy of it.

When speaking with Kushner about his family's move to Louisiana, Gates discussed the fact that many Jews who moved to the South in the third quarter of the 19th century did so not only for economic opportunity, but specifically because they were willing to do business with recently freed slaves, whereas many of the white residents of the areas would not do so.  I was happy to see this point made.  Even into the 20th century this situation persisted; Kushner's family started its lumber company in Lake Charles in 1927 and thrived in part because they were happy to serve the black community.  (Hey, what do you know!  Not every comment is negative.)

In relation to Dershowitz's ancestors, Gates explained they were from Galicia and said it was "now located in Poland."  That would be a significant surprise to the many people in what was formerly Eastern Galicia, which is solidly part of Ukraine now.

This same segment with Dershowitz included an interesting piece of information I had never heard before.  Dershowitz discussed an old Jewish religious law that did not permit observant Jews to travel on a ship on the Sabbhath, which is consistent with what I understand of similar restrictions, such as not being able to drive or ride in a car on the Sabbath.  He didn't state when this law was modified, but if it had not been, Orthodox Jews such as my own grandfather's parents would not have been able to make the trip to the "Goldene Medina", because the ship passage took more than seven days and therefore necessitated traveling on at least one Sabbath, if not more.

Truly unfortunately, Gates did not quash an old wives' tale regarding immigration when he had the opportunity.  King said she had been told that her family's name was changed at Ellis Island.  This myth persists today even though many credible and knowledgeable sources have explained why it simply could not have happened.  Instead of categorically denying the possibility, though, Gates said merely that it "almost never happened."  Why even leave that door open?  It NEVER happened.

I think Gates and his team may have bitten off a little more than they could chew with this theme.  They were apparently unable to trace any of the celebrities' families back very far.  I think the farthest he got was to a second- or third-great-grandfather for one person.  I noted several instances of missing maiden names on the family tree sketches that were shown.  This affected even relatively recent generations, such as David and Mollie Glajman, King's paternal grandparents.  Very few family photographs were displayed and identified; most of the images appeared to be "generic."  No really big revelations.  And they didn't even talk about the DNA results, apparently because the basic results were very predictable.

And since this episode was about Jewish research, have you ever noticed the underwriters for the series?  Dr. Georgette Bennett, Dr. Leonard Polonsky, Candace King Weir, the Daryl & Steven Roth Foundation — that's a lot of Jewish names, isn't it?


  1. Thank you, Janice, and well done. (I think. PBS does not permit this program to be shown on Internet in Israel, so I have no idea if what you are saying is corect or not. But it sounds good.)

    For what it's worth, I don't recall any prejudice while growing up in the US and I probably had more outward signs of Judaism than you.

    If I recall correctly, the prohibition of travelling on ships on Shabbes is restricted to getting on or off. I don't think there was ever a problem with being on a ship as it sailed.

    1. Thank you, Israel. It's good to hear from someone so quickly about not experiencing prejudice. That statement of his really bothered me.

      And thanks for the additional information about the prohibition of traveling on ships. As I said, I had not heard of that before. If there was no problem with merely being on the ship, though, it shouldn't have drastically affected travel in the way that Dershowitz suggested.

  2. There was another small item that bothered me. As the camera was panning up one of the family trees, I noticed a relative listed as born in Kovno, Russia. While the Russia reference is technically correct, I think they should have shown Lithuania, even if only in parentheses. Not all viewers know that old "Russia" is not modern day Russia. Also, the world would have one less Jew walking around saying that their ancestor came from Russia (for me, always a clue that someone hasn't really researched their family's history).

    1. This actually gets into the continually ongoing discussion about which is better to use: the name of a place at the time an event occurred, or the name as it is currently. When that person was born in Kovno, it was indeed Russia, not just technically, and that's exactly where that person came from, although it is Kaunas, Lithuania, now. In my own files, I list both names. But it is not incorrect to say that the ancestor came from Russia. Saying he was Russian, however, is an entirely different thing.


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